In my last blog post I touched on the subject of infographics. By coincidence, this week, a set of ten infographic postcards have landed on my desk for reviewing. Produced by Scott Addington, and taken from his book ‘The Great War 100 – The First World War in Infographics‘, these cards cover ten of the key battles of the First World War.
The front cover of the packaging in which the cards come describes the contents as:
“Ten Infographic Postcards: Packed with facts, stats and first hand accounts of some of the bloodiest battles in history.”
The first thing I should offer is a brief health warning. These are not traditional postcards. Each is a large 20cm x 20cm square produced on glossy card, with information on both sides. These are most definitely not designed to be sent through the post! Rather they are information cards for reading, exploring and displaying. Each one covers a particular battle/campaign from the First World War: Mons, Tannenberg, Gallipoli, Loos, Verdun, Somme, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai, Kaiserschlacht, Amiens.
On the front of the cards is an infographic of the style found throughout the aforementioned book. Set on a dark background, there is a location map to put the battle in question in the wider context of the First World War. Also on the front side are the dates of the battle/campaign in question, the commanders, the numbers of troops involved, casualties and other relevant statistics.
On the rear of the cards there is a ‘Did you know?’ section which covers some of the key facts and figures about the battle – some providing basic information other a little more quirky. For example the fact that after the success at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 church bells were rung in Britain for the first time since 1914. Finally on the back there is also a relevant quote from a participant in the battle providing some human colour to the story.
To set these cards in context it is important to understand Scott Addington’s philosophy in producing them. He calls himself a ‘layman’ and this is his approach to this project. As he says on his website:
History doesn’t have to be dull. My aim is to write military history books in a lively way that informs and inspires people that have may have never read much history before. My ‘Layman’s Guides’ military history books are short, sharp and to the point – not chock-full of unnecessary detail that can sometimes overwhelm and confuse readers. Fact books and infographics add a slightly different twist to the telling of history as I try to make the subject more accessible to more people!
With this aim in mind, I am sure Scott would not object to me saying that these postcards do not purport to be extensive histories, nor are they primarily targeted at the expert. Rather they are a collection of key facts and figures that provide an interesting and accessible overview, and a taster to a deeper study of the battles.
Now at £7.99 a pack, I am not sure I see them fitting in the library of a serious student of the First World War – there is so much more detail available in a myriad of other publications. Equally if one has an interest in infographics, and I have to admit I do, then one will probably wish to buy the book which is full of them! However, as an introduction to the First World War, these cards have much scope to open up the story of these battles to a new audience. I can see them being very attractive to children and young adults, be it in schools or at home. Gracing the walls of a history class in school, or the bedroom wall of an enthusiastic young historian, they are guaranteed to grab attention and be a talking point. Indeed had they been around when I was a child they would have been on my bedroom wall! Equally I can see parents attaching these with fridge magnets to the fridge door, or leaving them lying around, in order to provide an opportunity to stimulate young minds during the current First World War Centenary commemorations.
In short these are an imaginative, attractive and engaging set of cards that will provoke discussion and interest. The selection of facts and figures give a good flavour for each battle. They are thought provoking and will encourage further investigation. And if they encourage those with little understanding of the First World War to engage with the history and explore the subject further, then Scott has probably achieved his aim, and I congratulate him for trying to do so with such an attractive and accessible product.
The map above was produced over 150 years ago by John Bachelder to help explain Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863). Even though it was produced all those years ago it still fascinates and engages me. To me maps are essential tools in interpreting history, yet I still find history books being published that lack adequate, and in some cases any, maps. It is a failing that I find inexcusable and very frustrating. History is all about the relationship between people, events and places. To fail to provide visual material to support this is to leave the reader without key information and context. In this blog I wish to explore the important role maps have to play in understanding history, and to highlight a few excellent and useful examples.
One of the most crucial areas of history to require maps is military history. Without good maps it is impossible to really understand battlefields. The relationship between military operations and the terrain over which they are conducted is inextricable. The International Guild of Battlefield Guides nicely summarises this in its approach to interpreting battlefields. This seeks to examine and understand battlefields from three different but interrelated perspectives. The historical. The topological. The archaeological.
In this triumvirate, history is the story of the battle. This considers who took part and why, the armies, their commanders, the weaponry used, the chronology of the events, the narrative and how they all relate. But these in themselves make little sense without looking at the topology, or terrain, over which the battle took place and how that ground affected the battle. The terrain could be the macro-terrain such as the impact of an impassable river, rugged mountains or an impenetrable area of forestry. It could equally be the micro-terrain, the folds in the ground or other small features that influenced the tactical action.
The final element to be considered is the archaeology. That is what has changed since the battle, and what the terrain looked like at the time. This information is crucial especially where modern life has encroached, be it housing, foliage or any other modern intrusions. Interestingly enough, on some of the world’s best-preserved battlefields, this is especially so in America, work is often conducted to remove buildings and vegetation that were not on the battlefields at the time in order for modern day visitors to appreciate the terrain as it was.
Now I have digressed a little from my title, but I think that by highlighting how these three perspectives are linked, helps signpost how a map can bring history to life. A simple but well crafted map can show all these elements in great clarity. It can depict the terrain, its undulations, its habitation, its vegetation, its rivers, in fact any physical feature, as they are today and/or at the time of a battle or historical event. Very importantly a map can give an idea of scale, which is very difficult to do in any other way. The history can then be overplayed on this for a rich informative picture. There are many excellent examples of maps being produced today that do just this. Some of the best I have seen are those prepared by Steven Stanley for the Civil War Preservation Trust in America, who now have a series of battlefield maps for all the key sites of the American Civil War. The map below is an excellent example of this series. The painstaking attention to detail employed in depicting the terrain, the troop deployments and movement, and the difference between the modern landscape and the historic, allow the viewer to understand the battle in detail.
Now the same logic I have outlined so far can be applied, with varying degrees of modification, to other environments and types of history equally well. To me it would be inconceivable to write the history of a city without a map to show how it had developed over time. Or to write a history of railways, or a railway line, without a map illustrating the route or the network.
Thus far I have really only looked at modern maps designed and produced specifically to explain a battle or place. But there is of course huge value in using primary source maps, contemporaneous to the events. A good example, and a source I use regularly on battlefield tours, are the trench maps produced in the First World War to aid the troops in the front lines. These are now readily available to modern day historians from a variety of sources, and provide an invaluable resource to help envisage and understand battlefields on which the trenches and fortifications of the War have, by and large, been removed and the landscape returned to farming.
Historic maps come in all shapes and guises. A set I also particularly like were produced by Charles Booth (1840–1916) an English social researcher and reformer. A example of Booth’s maps is seen below and is taken from a multi-volume work called ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ which surveyed the lives and occupations of the working classes of London in the late Nineteenth century. The maps were colour coded by social group. The red areas were classified as ‘middle class, well-to-do’, purple as ‘Mixed, some comfortable, others poor’, the pink areas ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’, the light blue areas as ‘poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family’, the dark blue areas are ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’, and black areas are the ‘lowest class vicious, semi-criminals’. The resulting maps give an illuminating insight into the social construct of the city at that time, in particular the juxtaposition of a range of social groups sometimes in quite small geographic areas. Very importantly this sort of insight and impact is very difficult to convey in just words, with the maps providing a crucial spatial dimension.
Maps can also go beyond the basic and familiar format. One of my favourites, because it so graphically illustrates the subject matter it is portraying, is Charles Minard’s map of the Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated expedition to Russia in 1812-1813. (See images below.) Produced in 1869 it was described as a figurative map and illustrated very dramatically the devastating losses incurred by Napoleon’s army as it first invaded and then retreated from Russia. To my mind no words can sum up as well, nor have as much impact, as this map does in displaying the destruction of this huge army.
Modern technology and interpretive techniques, now makes all this sort of information even more accessible, useable and much easier to portray on a map. A great example is the Bomb Sight project which is, as stated on their website:
‘…mapping the London WW2 bomb census between 7/10/1940 and 06/06/1941. Previously available only by viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.
The project has scanned original 1940s bomb census maps, geo-referenced the maps and digitally captured the geographical locations of all the falling bombs recorded on the original map.‘
The image below illustrates how the information is overlaid very simply onto a modern base map. This allows someone with the map on a mobile device, to explore the streets of London and understand the impact of the ‘Blitz’ on its streets and buildings.
Modern graphic techniques are also now being used to build on the sort of work originally undertaken by the likes of Charles Minard, and combine mapping, strong imagery and rich information into ‘infographics’. These perhaps push at the boundaries of what I have been discussing and are probably not considered to be a map by the purist. However, as the example below demonstrates very well, this genre can create an engaging and interesting visual which clearly links locations with actions or events,and the historical story, thus providing the viewer with a great deal of useful information in an easily digestible form.
So to return to my title, why are maps essential to understanding history? I hope I have begun to show that the interrelation between people, events, activities and places is at the heart of history. A good map is able to take all these elements, place them on a two-dimensional space, and bring these interactions to life. To produce good maps requires accurate content, meticulously researched and cross-referenced. It also requires high quality presentation of this information to engage the viewer and entice them to explore the detail. Properly executed, whether a map is a modern one designed to explain a specific battle or event, or an historic map created for a particular purpose at the time, the way a good map can relay factual information far exceeds the ability of words to do so. Indeed to paraphrase an old saying, it is very much a case of ‘… a map paints a thousand words…’.